I get nervous when companies get excited about benchmarking. I understand why they do it. If you’re lagging, benchmarking defines a target and improvement path to catch up. But that’s exactly why I get nervous. At best, benchmarking helps you get to where others already are, and more often, where they’ve been. It paints the path to competitive parity; not advantage.
Thought leadership is different and since knowledge is the dominant raw material for growth in the global economy, being viewed as a thought leader offers more value than many realize.
- Thought leadership articulates a “point-of-view platform” that differentiates you from competitors.
- The thinking required for thought leadership also informs good strategy. It separates the most important and actionable signals from the noise.
- Thought leadership forces companies to lean outward towards customers as well as forward into the future. You can’t paint a path to the future that compels customers if you don’t comprehend their issues, aspirations or competitive challenges. And to lead, you have to take a stand before others do.
Thought Leadership vs. traditional “push” marketing
Thought leadership takes a strategic commitment. One-off marketing campaigns that self-define themselves as thought leadership are transparently bogus. True thought leadership evolves over time as the insights shared garner traction in the industry. Thought leadership can provide a rationale for your products and service but making that the dominant posture is a serious error. Respected thought leadership rises above marketplace battles and objectively broad challenges within a domain. Four factors distinguish thought leaders:
- Thought leaders are uniquely qualified to provide leading edge thinking. They’re expertise is seasoned with experience that separates re-hash from what’s significant and new. Thought leaders thrive on interaction with multiple sources to keep their thinking fresh.
- Thought leaders are attracted to the most challenging and forward-looking issues. They live on the leading edge because that’s where understanding is still incomplete and solutions are yet to be defined. They are good model builders and intensely curious learners.
- Thought leaders have the courage to declare their point-of-view before there is a clear consensus. Going public is a critical part of their learning process despite the potential for criticism and error.
- Thought leaders put unraveling the issues above themselves and their personal or organization affiliation be it corporate, government or non-profit. They see themselves serving a wider community. When their company’s products and services are relevant, they will include them but not by exclusively or by wrote. The overlap between experience, curiosity, objectivity and passion is what makes them attractive to others.
Many look to academics for thought leadership to insure objectivity. The tradeoff is currency. Academia moves much slower than business. Getting articles into scholarly journals requires focused research, controls and peer review that can easily take several years. At the speed of today’s business, many practitioners are more current with greater and broader experience. The challenge for the practitioner is being objective and providing their insights as a gift without strings attached.
Some consulting firms have partnered with academics to strike a balance (full disclosure: I am an Academic Affiliate for PRTM, Inc. and have been for Analysis Group Economics). From the clients’ perspective, they get access to objective, leading thinkers combined with consulting support for implementation. From the consulting firm’s perspective, the affiliate provides credibility and intellectual insights that can differentiate their offering. Still, the academic has to maintain sufficient independence from the consulting firm.
Case example: Cisco Systems
Cisco Systems has used thought leadership to establish itself against increasingly large competitors.
The challenge of managing information technology has grown more complex and costly than the equipment itself. The most common approach has been to acquire or built internal consulting services that augment traditional hardware businesses. This started with IBM’s $3.9B purchase of PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1992, followed by HP’s 2008 acquisition of EDS and Dell’s 2009 purchase of Perot Systems. In contrast, Cisco helps their customers cope with complexity by harnessing their executives, VARS and selected outsiders as thought leaders. Cisco foregoes the incremental revenue from large consulting service arms but also the complications and expense of managing a combined service and product company.
Cisco started their effort over ten years ago; long before companies understood how to leverage the power of networking in operating their businesses. Beginning with their first Executive Briefing Center in San Jose, Cisco shared how they used their own Intranet to improve cost and performance. One of the first issues they attacked was expense reporting.
At that time, it was a simple but compelling example of how web services could improve cost control and employee satisfaction at the same time. Expense reporting has little upside and plenty of room for problems. Cisco showed customers how they moved their own expense reporting to the web, achieved greater control and were able to reimburse employees in 1 day.
Today, an expectation of Cisco leaders is to write, speak, podcast along with presenting at Briefing Centers and conferences around the world. The exchanges educate customers and of course, Cisco executives. Cisco hosts a Thought Leadership Catalog, which contains case studies, presentations and videos that describe the future according to Cisco. Take a look, it’s really quite remarkable.
Is the investment working? Here are two examples. Cisco’s thought leadership efforts have helped them build leadership positions in two new business lines: Internet-based telephony and most recently, high end teleconferencing. In the latter’s case, Cisco’s vision of “telepresence,” has made them the high-end market leader which in turn has driven the sales of more network equipment to handle the video’s larger bandwidth requirements.
How Thought Leaders Do What They Do
Making sense of complexity is a specific learning skill as one is dealing at the edge of fact, examples and theory. Thought leaders mimic photographers when in that they frame situations, pay attention to what’s lit, shaded or obscured before they choose how to focus the viewers’ attention. Just as good photographers will shoot a subject from many angles, thought leaders examine issues from multiple perspectives. Once thought leaders commit to a point-of-view, instead of taking a picture as a photographer would, they build a model. They’ll test their model using a variety of tools and analytics to test their models just as photographers employ Photoshop. Last, they go public. Thought leaders expose their thinking through books, articles, webcasts, conferences, and selective sales presentations.
The Gift of Thought Leadership
Today’s global economy has its share of what feel like earthquakes followed by multiple aftershocks. Each jolt has the potential of creating confusion internally and in the marketplace.
We’ve all had the experience of reading a good article or book recommended by a friend that reduced the confusion, perhaps showing some upside opportunities. My experience is that I always thought better of that friend for this small gift. Thought leadership operates the same way. As the Cisco example illustrates, thought leadership takes commitment but not much cost. Done right, it’s a gift well worth giving.